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The Boston Globe

Protecting 'Innocent' Ears

Let me get this straight. What offends about "Saving Private Ryan" is not the way the film objectified the carnage of D-Day as something beautiful or the way it resuscitated the discredited myth of war as glorious -- but the way it uses a four-letter word? When various television stations declined to broadcast the film last week, were we being shown a hint of the deep trouble into which we Americans have gotten ourselves?

The offending word, of course, is a profane euphemism for sexual intercourse. Does the explicit juxtaposition of war and sexual reference, perhaps, point to the underlying problem? Commentary suggested last week that the television stations were made squeamish by recent FCC rulings against broadcast indecency, but could it be that the real source of unease is that thousands of "Private Ryans" are now undergoing the actual nightmare of warfare in Iraq? Fallujah has been "liberated," they tell us, but television has also brought us hints of what a staggering battle it has been. Does last week's censoring of a movie that unforgettably features slow-motion renditions of combat savagery reflect an unconscious urge to avoid turning such horror into an evening's entertainment while young Americans are at such risk?

But there are more difficult questions embedded here. One concerns the relationship between sex and war. The other concerns the imagined character of the young people we have sent to war in our name.

A new movie tells the story of Dr. Alfred Kinsey, another indication of the obsession of which we are looking for ways to speak. The famous sex researcher demonstrated what Freud had postulated, that there is a physiologically manifest connection between physical aggression and sexual assertiveness. War and sex are linked. The irony, of course, is that physical aggression seems to follow from feelings of powerlessness, the most emblematic of which -- for males -- have to do with sexual frustration.

Speaking of television, is it an accident that the nation finds itself most intensely at war in the season when the Viagra theme song has become a kind of anthem? Male impotence, or fears of it, are openly referred to, but the problem has its effect far more broadly than in bedrooms. Beware a heavily armed nation that acts like a man with something to prove.


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Because of the puritanical way in which "moral values" are defined in contemporary America, the connection between killing and sex is not regarded as fit for public discussion any more than the connection, say, between fears of impotence and gun ownership would be. But as suggested by an election in which Iraq was not an issue but homosexuality was, it is not sex we cannot openly contemplate but the actualities of violence. In war, human beings hand over ethical decision-making to a chain of command. Private soldiers do this, but so do the populations of war-making nations. This is the ultimate in impotence. We Americans watched the unfolding story of Fallujah as if we were not responsible for it.

"We can win," a soldier told The Boston Globe's indomitable Anne Barnard last week. "We just have to blow the hell out of Fallujah. Level the place." And apparently we did. Why would it bother television viewers to think of American GIs uttering the profane word for sexual intercourse in such a context? Does rough sexual language interfere, perhaps, with an unconscious need to think of our soldiers as innocents?

In ancient Athens, "youths and virgins" were sent in blood sacrifice to the Minotaur each year; Aztec cultures did something similar. It is a primitive human impulse to appease the gods with a sacrifice of the virtuous young. Their sexual innocence is required. Such gods are perverse, of course, but so are nations seeking to appease them.

You say it is a stretch to think of the war in Iraq in such terms. But all I am trying to do here is connect the dots between a set of f-words: films, fear of impotence, filiocide, the fallacy of "victory," Fallujah. When "conscious" motivations ring hollow, attention must turn to what remains "unconscious."

What could possibly be driving our nation to this "leveling" of Iraq? We don't know, and we don't want to know. We are ordering our young people to leap into a volcano. Our warplanes spew fire on the heads of old men, women, and children. We are turning cities into ashes. Meanwhile, what offends us is the Anglo-Saxon word for what people do when they are lonely or in love.

James Carroll

James Carroll

James Carroll, a TomDispatch regular and former Boston Globe columnist, is the author of 20 books, including the new novel The Cloister (Doubleday). Among other works are: House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power and Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age. His memoir, An American Requiem, won the National Book Award. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He lives in Boston with his wife, the writer Alexandra Marshall.


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